Cotton, it’s not just fluff

When people think of cotton, they might think of cotton balls, cotton clothing, or of the very controversial role cotton growing played in US history, especially in the south.  But when I think of cotton, I think of an incredibly beautiful flower and plant.

pink flower

Cotton flower about to unfurl

Gossypium hirsutum, commonly called cotton, is found in the Malvaceae family. As a member of the Malvaceae family, cotton is closely related to plants like Okra, Hibiscus, Cacao, and Jute. Cotton is native to subtropical and tropical regions across the globe, and it thrives best growing in high heat. The word ‘cotton’ comes from the Arabic word, ‘Qutun’. Humans have been growing cotton for at least 7,000 years.

This is a cotton boll or capsule.  It is the fruit of the cotton plant.  When mature, the fruit splits open revealing cottony masses.  Mature seeds are located inside the cottony masses.

This is a cotton boll or capsule. It is the fruit of the cotton plant. When mature (dry), the fruit splits open revealing cottony masses. Mature seeds are located inside the cottony masses.

Once a cotton plant flowers and is pollinated, it produces a fruit called a boll. A boll is actually a hard capsule with fiber and seeds inside. When the fruit is ripe (in this case a capsule is ripe when it is dry), the boll dehisces, or splits open revealing the actual fluffy stuff we know as cotton. The seeds of the cotton plant are found inside of these cottony masses. These cottony masses, or fibers evolved to help with seed dispersal.

cotton

Mature cotton boll. Note the dried bracts surrounding the cotton fluff

Close up of young bracts surrounding a young cotton flower

Close up of young bracts surrounding a young cotton flower

Note the characteristic fused stamens (monadelphous)  associated with the Malvaceae family.

On this older flower, note the characteristic fused stamens (monadelphous) associated with the Malvaceae family.

Economically speaking, cotton is a very important agricultural crop. More than 60 countries now grow cotton for food, fiber, edible oil, seed, and food for livestock.  The Tucker greenhouse is currently growing cotton as a demonstration plant for Biological Science 3210 Plant Systematics.  The cotton seed was donated to Tucker Greenhouse by Mr. Jason Fenton, plant aficionado extraordinaire.